Border Forever: Minsk Restricts Local Border Traffic with EU States
On December 1, Belarus and Latvia took a new step toward opening up their common border. They signed a local border traffic agreement allowing their residents to visit each other's border regions for up to 90 days every six months without visas.
One could argue the achievement is modest: the eligible regions span no more than 30-50 km and visitors cannot travel to other parts of the host country or work there. Belarus gains little when compared to the Eastern European states that joined the EU and now enjoy Brussels' regulatory and funding support.
However, the agreement with Latvia is significant in other ways. Given Belarus's difficult experience with Europe, it represents a small step towards establishing normal communication with neighboring countries. More importantly, Lukashenka's ambivalent attitude toward local border traffic agreements underlines their broader political significance.
Who Wants Belarus Out of Europe?
For the residents of Belarus border regions, the border traffic agreement allows reestablishing old commercial and family ties disrupted by the more recent creation of national borders. The frontier with Poland dates back to the late 1940s, while the Lithuanian and Latvian borders only came into existence in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, broader political interests often obscure the Eastern European natural borders. The severity of EU visa requirements implies Belarusians somehow pose a danger to the EU security or economic interests. Such measures only exacerbate tensions with the Lukashenka regime which benefits politically from the country's closure. At the same time, European attempts to use visa restrictions as a means to force internal liberalization only serve to increase Minsk's resolve.
The peculiar nature of this dispute was captured in a December 7 statement by Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy. Mr Füle expressed his dissatisfaction that the Belarusian authorities have expressed no interest in the border issue. He said: “[W]e waited for Belarusian authorities to respond to our request to conclude such agreements for many months now […] When such an agreement is concluded, there is no reason why we cannot move further towards a non-visa regime as our ultimate goal.” But Mr Füle's assumption - that Belarusian regime wants to remove visa barriers and open up the country - may be completely wrong.
Like the EU visa situation, agreements on local border traffic illustrate that the Belarusian regime is not keen to remove borders anytime soon. Ukraine has already ratified and implemented a well-functioning local border traffic regime with some EU members. Belarus, by contrast, is trying to use such agreements as an instrument to confront the EU. Besides Latvia, Belarus has signed local border traffic agreements with two other neighboring EU nations – Lithuania and Poland. Officials and diplomats of these countries insist, however, that the Belarusian government delays further implementation.
On November 25, Lithuanian foreign minister Audronius Ažubalis said Lithuania could already have launched its local border traffic mechanism with Belarus in November if Minsk had not hampered the process. More frankly, Polish diplomats stated in November that Belarus had ignored ratification for more than 14 months. The Polish ambassador to Belarus even alleged that Lukashenka had signed the agreement in December 2010 yet Belarusian government was technically unprepared to implement it.
Polish Fears of the Belarusian Regime
There is some logic behind Minsk's divergent approaches to opening its borders with neighbors. The agreement with Latvia, first of all, is most amenable to the Lukashenka regime because Latvia has not exerted much diplomatic pressure on Minsk in recent years. Indeed, Latvia has even supported Belarus in some of its disputes with the EU. Moreover, the Belarusian area bordering Latvia is sparsely populated, so the actual effect of the agreement is insignificant.
Border traffic agreements with Lithuania and Poland, however, are a different story. In the former, approximately 800,000 Lithuanians and 600,000 Belarusians would be allowed to visit each other without visas. Some major cities on both sides of the border would be affected -- Hrodna, Lida, Ashmiany and Pastavy in Belarus, and Vilna, Ignalina, Varana, and Druskininkai in Lithuania. Even more dramatic would be the effect on border traffic between Belarus and Poland, covering a larger swathe of Belarus, including the provincial centers Hrodna and Brest, and encompassing around two million people on both sides of the border.
But the Belarusian regime has its reasons for delaying the agreements with Vilnius and Warsaw. Relations with Poland are tense because of its resolute support for Lukashenka's opponents. Although relations with Lithuania are in much better shape, the country hosts numerous Belarusian opposition groups and events. Over the past decade, Vilnius has become for Lukashenka's opponents what Miami has always been for the opponents of Cuban dictators – a safe haven next door to the home country.
Second, Belarusian authorities maintain a Soviet era attitude to controlling borders. In the Soviet Union, entire regions along the borders were considered to be border security zones. They were strictly patrolled by KGB, and even Soviet citizens needed special documents to enter them. In early 2009, the Belarusian government finally reduced the size of border zones and abolished the special documents required for its own citizens to enter these areas. But old attitudes die hard.
Third, Lukashenka has always been suspicious of the 400,000-strong Polish ethnic minority in Belarus. For years, police and security agencies have led a coordinated struggle against the independent leadership of the Polish minority union. In this context, local border traffic could be suspected as a channel to strengthen potential opposition movements among ethnic Poles in Belarus.
Opening the European Union to Belarusians
The very best sanction against Lukashenka's regime would be a unilateral opening of the European Union to Belarusian citizens. This would be a positive policy not linked to any bargaining game with the Lukashenka regime. Visa-free travel would be much more effective than border traffic agreements, which ultimately are just half-baked measures.
Without this, Belarus will remain closed to the West - its rulers are not at all interested in establishing more links with the rest of Europe, which they consider a threat to their own survival. The absence of freedom of movement to the West carries adverse geopolitical consequences not only for Belarus, but for Europe as a whole.